‘No Absolute Freedom of the Press’

How China Is Disabling Hong Kong’s Free Press

By Patrick McShane

In these occasional reports, Digital Privacy News examines the fallout from China’s new “national security law” on Hong Kong.

Whenever a totalitarian regime endeavours to destroy a free press, various methods can be applied.

In the case of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its drive to disable and eliminate Hong Kong’s free press, the party has used a range of tried-and-true techniques.

First, Beijing waged a campaign to harass and threaten individual reporters and editors — even publishers. Then, hardliners would push the party to graduate to brazenly carrying out physical violence against outspoken journalists.

Another party technique: use political pressure and financial intimidation toward potential advertisers, “encouraging” them not to offer advertising dollars to publications advocating for a free and open society or speaking ill of the party.

Finally, if — or when — these approaches failed, the CCP would open its sizable purse strings to outright buy — generally through third parties — publications bold enough to criticize Beijing’s policies.

In fact, Beijing repeatedly has tried to use all these methods, with varying degrees of success and failure.

Buying Newspapers

China enjoys an extraordinarily successful record of purchasing major Hong Kong newspapers. The CCP has achieved this because the party has always found compliant billionaire businessmen holding mega investments on the mainland.

These savvy magnates are acutely aware of the immense power of the Communist Party to help — or hurt —their mainland investments.

Thus, these tycoons always are keen to stay on Beijing’s good side — and they rarely will waiver when asked by China to grant favors. They could be small, like finding a well-paid job for the son of a high-level Communist Party cadre.

Protesters converge on the Wanchai District Police Station during a 2014 rally to protect press freedoms in Hong Kong.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the Goldman Sachs Group Inc. have made such hires over the years, for example.

In 2009, The Financial Times reported — based on statements from the U.S. Justice Department — that an official from a Chinese energy company who sought an investment bank to handle its upcoming IPO made it clear that JP Morgan would be looked upon with favor if it found a job for an individual described as the official’s “nephew.”

Early the next year, JPMorgan’s Hong Kong’s office found a one-year job for the “nephew.” Months later, the company handled the IPO, earning a $23.8 million profit.

But favors asked by the party can be far larger, such as the proposal to buy entire newspapers in Hong Kong.

Murdoch Buys Paper

Founded in 1903, the South China Morning Post (SCMP), long had been owned by reputable Hong Kong-based investors, including such trusted corporate icons as the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank.

However, in 1986 Beijing persuaded Australian billionaire businessman and global media mogul Rupert Murdoch to buy the SCMP.

Murdoch, best known in the U.S. as the owner of the conservative Fox cable network, generally makes no public statements about his investments, but he told at Tokyo publisher’s conference in 1997: “China is a distinctive market with distinctive social and moral values that Western companies must learn to abide by.”

With the SCMP deal, many observers wondered why Murdoch would acquire a relatively obscure newspaper. One likely answer came in 1993, when he paid $525 million for a controlling share in a Hong Kong television station, Star TV.

His ambitious plan: to penetrate the huge Chinese market by using satellite TV, which allowed his company to broadcast across China from Hong Kong.

By gaining the attention of 1.3 billion Chinese viewers and consumers, Murdoch would earn billions in ad revenue. 

But in 1994, Murdoch swiftly dropped the celebrated BBC World Service news program from Star TV, after it aired a documentary about former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, which he said had upset “the people with whom I am trying to do business.”

“China is a distinctive market … that Western companies must learn to abide by.”

Rupert Murdoch, Australian media mogul.

The next year, the international book-publishing house he owned, HarperCollins, produced a glowing biography of former Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping, penned by his youngest daughter.

Murdoch then broke his contract in 1998 with Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, Chris Patten, who had written a book, “East and West: China and the Future of Asia.”

Business figures and China-watchers in Hong Kong said the reason was because Murdoch feared that CCP criticisms in the book would harm his relations with the party.

Patten threatened to sue for breach of contract, but a settlement was reached: HarperCollins paid an undisclosed sum to the author and Murdoch’s publisher “unreservedly apologized.”

The book eventually was published by another house later that year, to wide acclaim.

In its review, the China Daily, the CCP’s official newspaper said: “The retired governor has done everything he can to hurt the feelings of the Chinese people with extremely provocative language.”

Hotel Magnate Acquires SCMP

After managing the SCMP since 1986, Murdoch then sold it to Malaysian-Chinese developer Robert Kuok in 1993.

Kuok, whose corporate headquarters are in Hong Kong, held major investments across the mainland, including the Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts group, which owns 20 luxury hotels there, including three each in Beijing and Hong Kong.

Under Kouk’s ownership, the SCMP’s coverage of China grew more conservative.

In 2000, the paper’s Beijing correspondent and internationally respected China expert, Willy Lam, resigned because of what he insisted was relentless censorship. The year before, CNN called Lam “one of the most plugged-in observers of Chinese politics in the world.”

Lam since has authored five books on China and is a professor of China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Another respected reporter fired from the SCMP under Kuok’s ownership was Jasper Becker. Joining the paper in 1995, Becker was promoted to Beijing bureau chief, overseeing all mainland coverage.

He was fired seven years later, however, for “insubordination.”

Becker wrote about the dismissal for The Washington Post: “Why I was Fired in Hong Kong.”

“After the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997,” Becker said, “one of the toughest challenges facing the Chinese Communist Party was to gain control over the freewheeling media there.

“For more than a century, Hong Kong had been a refuge for dissenting voices in the Chinese world.

“The Chinese-language press was the first target — and the process of subduing its boisterous members began even before 1997.”

Hong Kong demonstrators carry a sign saying “Truth should not be met with violence” at a 2014 rally.

By 2012, the question of the SCMP’s editorial independence came to a head when mainland-born Wang Xiangwei became the paper’s new editor-in-chief.

Wang oversaw firings and forced departures of some of the newspaper’s most-seasoned China reporters.

One such reporter was Paul Mooney.

Mooney, who had been the SCMP’s Beijing correspondent, had won 10 reporting prizes for the newspaper, including twice taking home the Hong Kong Human Rights Press Award.

Wang, who began his career in Beijing on the CCP’s China Daily, cited budgetary concerns for ending Mooney’s contract.

But many newsroom staff privately said that they believed that Mooney’s reports on mainland corruption were the true reason for his departure.

A ‘Suspicious’ Death

One explicit example of the SCMP’s censorship, cited by critics, involved the prominent Chinese labor-rights activist Li Wangyang, who died under “suspicious” circumstances in June 2012.

Li who had taken part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, had served 21 years in prison, on charges of counterrevolutionary propaganda, incitement and subversion.

A year after his release, and days after he vowed in a television interview to continue to call for vindication of the Tiananmen protests, Li was found hanged in a hospital room.

Beijing claimed it was a suicide, but later reclassified it as “an accident.”

The death caused an uproar in Hong Kong. Most of the city’s major newspapers ran the hanging as a front-page story, with extensive coverage.

But the SCMP, at Wang’s direction, ran a two-paragraph item in the back of the paper.

Billionaire Buys SCMP

In 2016, mainland billionaire Jack Ma acquired the SCMP Group.

Ma is the founder and chairman of Alibaba, often referred to as China’s version of Amazon.com. It is also the eBay of China, the PayPal of China and China’s version of YouTube.

Ma had zero experience in the newspaper business, but his companies long have been supported by the Chinese government.

Speaking about his relationship with the government, Ma said in 2014: “Be in love with them, but don’t marry them.”

Although his paper’s website enjoys nearly 200 million page views a month — a third from the U.S. — SCMP’s profits fell by 50% in the first quarter of this year, according to Bloomberg News.

A paywall went up in August, in hopes of generating revenue, Bloomberg reports.

But the paper’s younger city reporters increasingly are complaining that editors now routinely paint protesters as “rioters” and water down reports of police violence.

One senior editor who writes a regular column even urged Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to hit back at “malicious journalists” who have criticized her policies by calling them “fake news.”

Violence Against Journalists

The growing harassment against Hong Kong journalists recently has been reported globally.

Most specifically, the August arrest of Jimmy Lai, publisher of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, with him being handcuffed and paraded through the newsroom while on television.

Last month, national security police raided one of Lai’s private offices in Hong Kong, The Hong Kong Free Press reported, as did much of the city’s media, showing a search warrant and saying the raid was part of an investigation into the publisher’s private companies.

Officers had boxed up and removed documents in the raid, according to the report.

“It seems that they are looking for every possible reason to charge me,” Lai later told reporters. “The police didn’t even wait for the lawyer to come before they took things away, so that’s not rule of law.”

What is not well known, however, is that the pro-democracy tycoon publisher and his employees long have been victims of violent threats from for-hire muscle believed to be sponsored by China.

In 1995, as the Hong Kong handover approached, Lai founded Apple Daily, financed with $100 million of his own money, earned through his success in the garment industry.

By 1997, the liberal broadsheet’s circulation rose to 400,000 copies, four times that of the SCMP, making it the city’s second-largest paper.

In September 2012, a female Apple Daily reporter was assaulted in a restaurant by four men. The journalist was treated at a hospital and later released.

Then, the next year, attackers rammed a stolen car into the front gate of Lai’s home, leaving an axe and machete on his driveway. A second machete was found outside Lai’s business offices.

In January 2015, both Lai’s offices and home were fire-bombed, with the attacks coming after 1 a.m. And six months later, on June 30, three masked men with knives threatened printing workers as they packed trucks to distribute Lai’s paper.

The men burned 26,000 copies before fleeing.

Newspaper Editor Attacked

Perhaps the single most glaring example of violence against the Hong Kong press took place in February 2014.

Two men, using meat cleavers, attacked the editor of the liberal Ming Pao newspaper, Kevin Lau, 49, as he walked to work.

A survey last year by the Chinese University of Hong Kong found Ming Pao to long have been one of the city’s most trusted Chinese-language newspapers.

The men slashed Lau half a dozen times with the razor-sharp cleavers. Most local journalists believed the attack was an attempted assassination due to Lau’s reporting on Chinese corruption — particularly among the families of top party officials, including those of current President Xi Jinping.  

Two known organized crime members later were arrested on the mainland, refusing to say who had paid them. Lau, who spent two months in the hospital, since has walked with a limp.

A Hong Kong journalist holds up a sign protesting violence against the press at a 2014 rally.

Soon after the attack, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) organized a protest rally that brought more than 10,000 people into the streets. Many carried banners proclaiming, “They can’t kill us all.”

The SCMP is not Hong Kong’s only English-language paper restrained by close allies of the party.

The Sing Tao News Corp., the city’s largest Chinese-language newspaper, is owned by Charles Ho, who also publishes The Hong Kong Standard, an English-language tabloid, with a daily circulation of 100,000.

Said to be worth $500 million, Ho bought the Standard in 2001. He also is a longtime member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a key CCP surrogate.

HK Cops Vetting Reporters

On Sept. 22, Hong Kong police announced a new “accreditation policy” for all journalists, giving authorities the power to determine which reporters can cover their conduct and actions while on duty.

“There is no absolute freedom of the press anywhere in the world that is above the law,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement released two days later in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong belongs to China — and journalists working in the city should be prepared to follow the rule of law of both jurisdictions and consciously accept the oversight of the law.”

The police announced they no longer would recognize press accreditation by local media groups or journalists’ associations, unless they were registered with the Hong Kong Information Services Department.

Fighting Back

But the Society of Publishers in Asia urged the police against any such action, encouraging them instead to focus on “ensuring that all media representatives can do their jobs safely — and that access to information is not curtailed (because it) is key to upholding freedom of the press is enshrined in law.”

The HKJA and seven other media groups also demanded that the police drop the changes in a joint statement, adding that they would file an application for judicial review.

Chris Yeung, the association’s chairman, voiced fears that the changes also would allow police to set up restricted “no-go” areas throughout the city, thus obstructing journalists at will.

There also are concerns that the Hong Kong government eventually will demand that journalist have licenses, which must be renewed annually and can be revoked at any time, as has long been the case on the mainland.

Patrick McShane is a longtime resident of Asia.